Scrolling through my Twitter feed this morning, I learned that the “skee wee” sound, a high pitched squeal used by members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. (AKA) to promote its organization and as a greeting among its members, became a registered trademarkthis week. If you’re unfamiliar with AKA, it is a +100 year old service organization and sorority founded at Howard University.
Just in time for founders day, the corporate arm of the sorority added one more trademark to its already-large portfolio of intellectual property. The sorority has been using the “skee wee” sound since 1941, and the registration covers its “association services, namely promoting the interest of the sorority and its members.
If you have never heard “skee wee” performed out loud, put on some earmuffs and click on the video below to hear a “skee wee” battle between two members of the organization.
In my #PopCultureClass article a few weeks agoabout Insecure’s Racist As F**K episode, I mentioned that AKA has an impressive trademark portfolio. I see that it is continuing in the line of promoting and owning the brand that sustains the organization. It is cool to see a BGLO taking such steps. More companies and brands (AND BGLOs) should do the same.
So how did AKA do this, and how can you? Most people assume that trademark law only applies to logos and words, but this is the tip of the iceberg. Non-traditional trademarks can be a valuable way to distinguish a company from others in the same or similar markets.
Trademark law protects any word, symbol, slogan, or designation (a term that covers just about everything) that identifies your company and distinguishes it from other companies. A trademark can be anything — from the typical name or logo to a sound, motion, or smell. Basically, anything that is distinctive and separates you from the competition. Non-traditional trademarks are protectable and include sounds, colors, motions, scents, textures, holograms, positions, and shapes. Lately, even hashtags are getting trademarked by companies.
For example, my alma mater, the University of Arkansas, has a trademark for its “woo pig sooie” hog call cheer, which is hard to describe. It is a combination of hand gestures, sounds, and cheers:
Automobili Lamborghini S.p.A owns a trademark in the unique opening of its car doors:
Jay-Z was once sued for trademark infringementby wrestler Diamond Dallas Page over his use of the “diamond cutter” hand symbol (which would seem to be a trademark of my own sorority, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated, but I digress).
Don’t make the mistake of only pursuing trademark registration for logos and words. Think about how else you distinguish yourself from others in your market, and consider taking steps to protect those non-traditional trademarks.
These types of trademarks can be more difficult to get through the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), but they are regularly successful. The two most common issues relate to distinctiveness and functionality.
First, regarding distinctiveness, most non-traditional trademarks have to show something called “secondary meaning.” Secondary meaning basically looks in the minds of your customers – have you done enough marketing, advertising, and selling so that customers now associate the descriptive words with your company? You can prove it by showing customer surveys, advertisements, promotional materials, and the like.
Second, functionality isn’t allowed. If your non-traditional designation does something useful, or makes a product/service more aesthetically desirable, it isn’t a trademark and isn’t protectable. The USPTO will ask whether your non-traditional designation is essential to the use or purpose of your products, affects the cost or quality of your products, or makes your products more desirable to consumers because of the way it looks.
Even with these hurdles, it is worth considering adding a non-traditional trademark to your portfolio. With AKA, it may seem unnecessary (because the historic BGLOs don’t copy each other for the most part), but with so many copycat organizations on the scene, it makes all the sense in the world to me.
Congrats to AKA on the newest member of its trademark family. And congrats to me for making it through this post without (much) shade. #1913